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Beyond COVID-19: What’s Next for Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education?

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Sustaining the gains and building on the good outcomes associated with higher ed's response to COVID-19 can enhance the quality and distribution of online teaching and learning, build up resources and infrastructure, and ultimately save institutions valuable time and money.

Beyond COVID-19: Improving Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
Credit: Infobond / Shutterstock.com © 2021

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly interrupted the normal operation of educational institutions worldwide is a huge understatement. According to UNESCO, the educational experiences of nearly 1.4 billion students—of all ages—were disrupted.Footnote1 In an uncharacteristically swift action for higher education, the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to move their courses online while faculty, administrators, and staff worked remotely in order to protect millions of students and themselves. Since then, remote courses, remote student support services, remote graduation ceremonies, and remote campus tours became the new norm, all aimed at controlling the rapid spread of this deadly virus.

The attendant challenges initially stemmed from logistics, inadequate hardware and software, and curriculum and assessment adjustments. A large and varied number of faculty and students were unprepared to teach or learn remotely. Lack of access to digital devices, to the internet, and to sufficient bandwidth further exposed the lingering issues of the digital divide. Many institutions lacked robust online programs, sufficient instructional design and technology staff, appropriate course-development processes, and/or adequately structured student support mechanisms.

With emergency remote teachingFootnote2 as the only option, even the online education doubters and naysayers had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon, applying teaching strategies that mimicked classroom instruction in an attempt to enable students to move to the next level or even graduate. An argument can be made that the emergency remote teaching has been an aberration—a deviation from the normal online and classroom instructional practices in higher education and a temporary, short-term solution to the pandemic crisis. It is important to acknowledge that there is a difference between well-planned and developed online courses or distance education programs and the eclectic methods cobbled together hurriedly to meet the urgent demands of the situation. Nevertheless, the lessons learned from the experience should not be discarded.

Experiences from the Emergency Remote Teaching Experience

What lessons have higher education students, faculty, and administrators learned from the pandemic? Are the lessons worth keeping? What gains were made, and how can higher education harness and improve on those gains? Higher education's COVID-19 response resulted in an unstructured boost in online teaching and learning, fast-forwarded the adoption of more broad-based online learning strategies and technologies, and demonstrated a resilience that created a prototype for excellence in online teaching.

Favorable consequences emerged from efforts to fill the vast educational gap created by the pandemic. Institutions have grown their catalogs of online courses. Faculty, perhaps to their surprise, have learned that they can develop and engage in virtual classrooms. Faculty and students who had not previously considered online learning as authentic education have had a taste of it. Faculty members learned new technology skills. Institutions with a minimal footprint in the online environment deployed large numbers of emergency remote courses almost simultaneously, demonstrating the potential for scalability in the online learning mode.

The positive experiences gained during this period offer hope for some good long-term outcomes despite this deadly situation. But time, effort, and innovative resources will be required in order to improve on these gains and make them sustainable.Footnote3

Sustaining and Building on the Gains

Sustaining the gains and building on the good outcomes associated with the response can enhance the quality and distribution of online teaching and learning, build up resources and infrastructure, and ultimately save institutions valuable time and money. Yet the benefits gained from effective instructional innovations cannot be fully realized unless the innovations are harnessed and institutionalized.Footnote4 Sustaining the gains made during the pandemic can lead to scaling those innovations for wider applications. Rather than being treated as isolated strategies applicable to special projects, innovations can become accepted components of institution practice.Footnote5 The benefits of online teaching innovations can be shared with faculty within and outside the originating institutions. Efforts must be made to ensure that faculty, administrators, and instructional designers all are given the tools to document and adopt innovative approaches or gains.

Institutional Culture as a Factor in Sustaining Gains

An institution's culture could be a determining factor in the value it places on encouraging and enabling innovations in teaching and learning, experimentation, and creativity. The acceptance and effective completion of educational innovations relies on a supportive key administrator who has the vision, drive, and commitment to forge collaborative partnerships among faculty, academic technology support units, faculty development offices, and other support personnel charged with managing online learning.Footnote6

The process of institutionalizing the gains made during the pandemic must be an institution-wide strategy. The outcome will enhance programs and course offerings as it provides a platform for assimilating and managing innovations. Any bad habits picked up in the rush to provide pandemic-era courses or lingering notions about the quality of emergency remote teaching will need to be scrubbed off. Because past attempts to improve teaching and learning were often perceived to be indiscriminate and transient in nature, concerted efforts should be made in the post-COVID-19 era to avoid repeating those mistakes and to ensure diffusion and assimilation of the innovations.

Colleges and universities should take this opportunity to rethink system-wide initiatives that sustain pedagogical and technological gains and cultivate an enduring innovative culture. As David Ward, former chancellor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, noted: "Many segments of our curricula would have improved outcomes and capacity if the innovations were adopted at the right scale."Footnote7 Ward called for the rejection of long-held practices that hinder opportunities to serve students better, and he warned that it can be counterproductive to make uncoordinated and sporadic attempts at change.

Post-Pandemic Responses

What's Next for the Emergency Remote Courses?

In the post-COVID-19 era, institutions may reexamine the emergency courses to determine how they could be improved upon to meet the necessary standards, format, and quality of online courses. Of the many emergency courses generated during the pandemic, there could be those that should be salvaged. This will involve considerable time and effort in view of the resources that will be required, including the involvement of institutional leaders, faculty, instructional designers and technologists (IDTs), and other internal constituencies. The response that college and university leaders demonstrated during the pandemic to keep their doors open and ensure that instruction continued suggests that with the same fervor, resilience, and dedication, they can improve online learning courses and embrace the innovative practices that worked.

The post-COVID-19 period could be a time for higher education to create a plan for effective distance learning, particularly by institutions that had lagged behind. It will be a period to develop policies and procedures for online learning, to assess and determine the best technologies and delivery methods for online learning courses, to assemble the right online learning team for course development and improvement, and to prepare faculty in course development and online teaching.

What's Next for Emergency Remote Teaching?

When life at colleges and universities returns to normal, institutions may not have to discard all their emergency remote courses. Courses can be reexamined to determine how they might be retrofitted to meet format and quality reminiscent of pedagogically-sound online teaching and learning standards. These courses could form the catalyst for the rapid development and deployment of new online courses and programs. The best efforts and shells of courses developed as emergency initiatives can be improved upon and institutionalized. Understandably, this will be an arduous task, considering the time and resources commitment that will be required. Institutional leaders will need to play a major role in this effort, modifying their strategic plans to provide the needed resources, including personnel, technology, policies, and procedures.

Efforts to improve or develop online courses can build on existing quality standards—for example, the quality metrics from the Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecard Suite, Quality Matters, or UPCEA, the association for professional, continuing, and online education. The process of improving emergency remote courses affords an excellent opportunity to introduce the use of established benchmarking tools, checklists, and rubrics to faculty who are new to tools that measure the quality of online learning. Rubrics serve the important role of helping faculty and course developers integrate essential course elements.Footnote8 The improvement process of the emergency remote courses could be incremental.

Well-designed online courses have been found to be comparable to or as effective as traditional classroom instruction. With a judicious and creative approach, the delivery of online learning would morph from an emergency-fueled crisis reaction into a way of rethinking how to plan, improve, and best deliver online instruction. The process of developing quality online courses requires collaborative efforts between faculty and the instructional design experts.Footnote9 An added benefit to higher education from the steps taken to improve the emergency remote courses may be that faculty will use the experience to improve their traditional classroom instruction and hybrid course development and delivery.

What's Next for Instructional Designers and Technologists?

IDTs played key roles in the application of technological and pedagogical options to the creation and deployment of emergency remote teaching. Inside Higher Ed reported: "More than three-quarters [of instructors] said they received aid from instructional technology staff members (78 percent) and peer-to-peer forums (76 percent), while about two-thirds cited teaching and learning centers and instructional designers."Footnote10

Before the pandemic, the use of technologies and applicable pedagogies to advance instruction was accomplished with the support of IDTs. The pandemic era interventions further proved the value of IDT professionals as institutions turned to them to support faculty and to make optimal and informed use of technological and pedagogical solutions to scale up the deployment of the emergency remote courses.

In the post-COVID-19 era, higher education institutions will rely on the services of these professionals even more. Engaging IDTs will be essential to identifying gains, repurposing the emergency remote courses, ensuring the sustainability of the gains, and developing contingency plans to mitigate future emergencies. The practice of depending on one IDT to serve an entire institution will not suffice in this venture. The need for IDTs—often the graduates of Instructional Design and Technology programs—cannot be overemphasized and will predictably increase. Recruitment of IDTs where there are none or too few signals an institution's readiness to improve the quality and opportunity of virtual instruction. Institutional recognition of the value of IDTs, and support of the departments that provide instructional technology and online learning services, is encouraged.

What's Next for Students?

The post-COVID-19 period will be the time for higher education to build or reposition online learning to serve students better, particularly for institutions that lagged in these efforts before the pandemic. In this post-pandemic period, colleges and universities should develop plans that will guarantee students' readiness to learn online not only in normal times but also in the event of disruptions to classroom instruction, ensuring that there are no roadblocks to synchronous and asynchronous online learning.

The pandemic revealed the persistence of the digital divide. When asked about the challenges of remote teaching and learning, 65 percent of faculty members and 77 percent of administrators reported that students who do not have computer technologies or internet connections, or who live in areas with low bandwidth, are cut off from educational opportunities.Footnote11 A significant challenge to online learning and the feasibility of educational technologies has been access to hands-on experiences in science labs, studios, music conservatories, and other specialized learning environments. In such cases, well-developed digital simulations, educational video games, augmented reality, and/or demonstrations in hybrid models, virtual reality, and interactive learning applications could substitute for traditional lab or studio learning environments. For students with poor network connections, institutions could consider alternative approaches such as pre-packaged instructional materials made available through CDs, flash drives, e-books, or mobile media, in combination with printed materials.

Not all college/university students will have learned to love online learning during the pandemic, but institutions should anticipate a continuing need for this mode of instruction and should find ways to support students who opt for online learning because of its flexibility or other benefits. When the pandemic thrust on-campus students into the new learning format without preparation or experience, some lacked the technical knowledge, self-discipline, or effective time-management skills to succeed in an online learning environment. As normalcy returns, new or returning students who decide to continue with online learning for some of or all their classes may well require structured orientation to online learning—orientation that will include a comprehensive array of the skills necessary to navigate a digital learning environment.

Students' successful online higher education experience does not depend entirely on the quality of instruction. Non-academic support services such as registration and records, bookstores, library resources, assistive services to ensure ADA compliance, legal services to ensure FERPA compliance, technology support, academic and personal counseling services, career guidance, and countless other support resources should be available to online students. As institutions prepare for a post-COVID-19 return to classes, consideration should be given to building the capacity and the infrastructure that support these services. Students learning at a distance may be separated by time and space, but they still need the support provided to campus-based students.

What's Next for Faculty?

Before the pandemic, information on how to teach remotely, across all disciplines during an emergency, was limited. While there have been previous disruptions because of earthquakes, tornados, the H1N1 pandemic, and other natural disasters, nothing compares to the magnitude and intensity of COVID-19. It would be a mistake to assume that all faculty suddenly developed essential skills or an enthusiasm for online teaching as a result of the emergency remote teaching.

The post-COVID-19 era offers an opportunity to improve the online teaching experience for faculty and to improve the quality of online learning for students. One study showed that 34 percent of faculty described themselves as "not at all experienced" in teaching online before the pandemic and that only 22 percent described themselves as "very experienced."Footnote12 A recognizable result of the emergency remote teaching is that nearly all faculty members have been forced to think about online instruction. Regardless of the stage of their career, faculty members were expected to deliver their courses remotely during the pandemic.

Faculty now need to be, and deserve to be, part of a professional development effort to improve on the emergency remote courses, acquiring the necessary skills for developing and delivering online and hybrid courses. Those faculty members who lacked prior online teaching experience before the pandemic will most especially need additional training to engage in online instruction.

What's Next for Institutional Leaders?

Good leadership plays a major role in where and when technology is successfully implemented in the process of teaching and learning. This includes leadership at the institutional and the unit levels. The recognition and effective completion of educational innovations relies on the support of a champion, a key institutional administrator who, along with motivated faculty and engaged staff, has the vision, drive, and commitment to bring the project to fruition.Footnote13

Senior administrators in higher education need to rethink how to plan, advance, and deliver system-wide online instruction, harnessing what has been gained from the pandemic experience. Institutional leaders must be prepared to reevaluate their institutions' commitments to online learning when campuses fully open again, adjusting priorities to meet needs across all institutional levels, developing online educational policies that ensure high-quality pedagogical and technological strategies, creating operational processes and procedures for online learning, developing strategies to revamp the emergency remote courses, integrating online learning in their strategic plans, and developing long-term support and maintenance structures.

Rather than discarding all emergency remote courses, leaders should carefully reexamine these courses, documenting ways they can be redesigned to improve quality and identifying innovative processes that can be adopted for greatest efficiency. This will require some effort, considering the commitment of human and technological resources that will be required. But the result will be worth the effort. Institutional leaders are in a position to create the vision, earmark funds, authorize the hiring of key personnel, and lead the institution in salvaging and repurposing the emergency remote courses. They are also in the position to determine if the best approach for the institution is to partner with online program managers (OPMs).

Leaders must also engage in their own professional development as they assess what worked and what failed during the emergency. This professional development will afford the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of online learning and instructional technology—an understanding that will guide them in formulating policy. About 80 percent of polled administrators said that new administrative policies in response to the pandemic had created a challenge to remote teaching and learning; 70 percent said they plan to invest in training opportunities for faculty to improve online teaching skills, and 36 percent stated that they will invest in more-sophisticated online course design.Footnote14

What's Next for Technology Infrastructure?

Beginning in March 2020, as the pandemic closed campuses, institutions with available technology infrastructures and no plans for broad-based emergency remote teaching scrambled to cobble together courses for students. Zoom, Webex, Skype, BlueJeans, and other videoconferencing platforms became the new classroom. Educators used Blackboard, Adobe Connect, Google Drive, Microsoft Teams, and Google Workspace for collaborations and for delivery of course content. Various learning management systems were also utilized. In the post-COVID-19 world, faculty and administrators will need to identify the technologies that best suit their plans for online course development and deployment. Institutions can make up for inadequacies in their pre-pandemic technology infrastructure and ensure campus-wide support by assessing their needs, negotiating funding, and investing in the essential technologies that fit their online learning plan. In addition to the technologies mentioned above, other technologies that support online learning will be helpful, including learning analytics, assistive technologies for teachers or learners with disabilities, and highly rated programs offering relevant emerging technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, gamification, electronic portfolios, e-books or e-textbooks, and course capture systems.

Final Thoughts

The pandemic tested the resilience of colleges and universities as they executed online learning on a massive scale by creating online courses, adopting and adapting to unfamiliar technologies, engaging faculty en masse in remote teaching, and successfully meeting the instructional needs of students. Those experiences and lessons should not be discarded. The next phase for higher education in a post-COVID-19 world is to harness what worked well during the emergency response period and use those experiences to improve institutional practices for the benefit of both internal and external constituencies in the future.

Notes

  1. "1.37 Billion Students Now Home as COVID-19 School Closures Expand," UNESCO, press release, March 24, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Charles Hodges et al., "The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, March 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. John Nworie, "Developing and Sustaining Instructional and Technological Innovations in Teaching and Learning," Journal of Applied Learning Technology 4, no. 4 (September-October 2015). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Rhona Oldford, "Why Institutionalization Has Failed," Teacher Librarian 29, no. 3 (February 2002). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Daniel W. Surry and Donald P. Ely, "Adoption, Diffusion, Implementation, and Institutionalization of Educational Technology," in Robert A. Reiser and John V. Dempsey, eds., Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall, 2006). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Thomas Favale et al., "Campus Traffic and e-Learning during COVID-19 Pandemic," Computer Networks 176 (July 20, 2020); Sandra Garcia et al, "A List of What's Been Canceled Because of the Coronavirus," New York Times, January 21, 2021. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. David Ward, "Sustaining Strategic Transitions in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Review 48, no. 4 (July/August 2013). Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Victoria Brown, "Scaling Up While Maintaining Quality in Online Degree Development," Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 21, no. 3 (2018). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Colleen Halupa, "Differentiation of Roles: Instructional Designers and Faculty in the Creation of Online Courses," International Journal of Higher Education 8, no. 1 (January 2019). Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Doug Lederman, "Faculty Confidence in Online Learning Grows," Inside Higher Ed, October 6, 2020. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Audrey Williams June, "Did the Scramble to Remote Learning Work? Here's What Higher Ed Thinks," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8, 2020. Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.
  13. Jacqueline Dempster and Frances Deepwell, A Review of Successful Project Approaches to Embedding Educational Technology Innovation into Institutional Teaching and Learning Practices in Higher Education (York: Generic Centre, LTSN, 2002). Jump back to footnote 13 in the text.
  14. Ibid. Jump back to footnote 14 in the text.

John Nworie, an independent researcher, has held varied positions in higher education including Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs overseeing Online Learning, Faculty Development, and Instructional Technology at Tiffin University, Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at Fayetteville State University, Executive Director of Instructional Technology at Cuyahoga Community College, Curricular and Course Development Consultant at Pennsylvania State University, and Academic Technology Consultant at California State University, Fullerton.

© 2021 John Nworie